Memories of Chile

As I watch current events in Venezuela, I am haunted by memories of Chile. I lived in Chile from July 1972 until February 1973, while socialist Salvador Allende was president. I left Chile months before the fascist coup, although I had planned to return. That door closed.
Ruth Needleman
June 15, 2017

Nonetheless I was there for the banging of pots and pans, the incredible shortages, the right-wing mobilizations, and in particular, the entrepreneurial strike of October 1972. Maduro is not Allende, and Venezuela is not Chile. Forty-four years and radically changing conditions separate them. Yet we are living a period of right-wing backlash and government takeovers, not unlike the sixties and seventies in Latin America.

I am haunted by memories because of the similarities in the right-wing opposition tactics. I came to know them intimately, in large part because after the October 1972 strike. I researched the right-wing opposition to Allende as part of a volunteer job I was doing at Quimantu, the National Publishing House. After I completed a chronology for a book Quimantu was doing, I began to interview the right-wing leaders of the opposition.

I started with the truck owner Vilarin but got introduced up the line to the president of SOFOFA, Orlando Saenz, the National Association of Manufacturers and the fascist-led Agricultural Society, Benjamin Matte, among others.

At the time I was on sabbatical from UC Santa Cruz where I had just established a Latin American Studies program. I presented myself as a sympathetic gringa to the leaders who would lay the foundations for the military coup. One thing never left my mind. Orlando Saenz, the head of SOFOFA, explained to me that he was grateful for Allende because now they knew everyone who would have to be killed.

In the course of my interviews I realized that these opposition leaders thought I was CIA and ready to bring more funds to them. But this is not the reason I am haunted. It is the similarities in opposition developments.

The Shortages: If you were poor, you had access to what was called “the popular basket,” cesta popular, that included basic foods, cooking oil, matches and toilet paper. If you were rich, you had all these things from the black market. I was neither, and therefore found life quite hard. Without cooking oil, it was hard to cook, but even harder if you had no matches to light the stove. What was particularly annoying, however, was the lack of toilet paper. I soon concluded that if you want to turn the middle classes against a government, just take away their toilet paper. The owner of El Mercurio, the main conservative newspaper, owned the paper company. (He was also international vice-president of Pepsi Cola.) The UP (Popular Unity Government) discovered tens of thousands of rolls of toilet paper thrown into the Mapuche River. It was, in fact, part of the strategic boycott.

US Economic Blockade: The US economic blockade, for example, prevented any bus parts from arriving in Chile. The shortage of buses made travel in Santiago almost impossible. The country was using volkswagon mini-buses and anything with wheels to transport people. Buses would pass and there was not even a window you could hang onto. People were out the door holding each others’ waists.  As they were doing to Cuba, the US did to Chile. No aid, no trade, no imports, no exports.

Street Mobilizations: Then the pots and pans in the upper middle class barrio took to the streets, causing disruptions and general chaos.

President Allende did not respond with repression. In fact, he was convinced that the military in Chile was and would always be a supporter of democracy. He was wrong.

Pinochet was the US front man, preparing for a brutal military takeover. Training of Chilean military in Panama increased, as did US military funding. Training of right-wing trade unionists increased, done by the AFL-CIO’s international arm, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). I know this because I went to AIFLD’s training center and wrote down the names of Chilean students who attended over the two years preceding the coup. They were, for the most part, opposition leaders; some worked as agents turning in names of democratic union leaders so they could be rounded up and killed.

Allende decided to disarm rather than arm the masses, to placate Pinochet. The industrial strips outside of the capital were controlled by the workers and their unions. The workers were asked to disarm to show the world that Chile was on the road to socialism peacefully.

But the most lasting and gut-wrenching lesson I learned was that the ruling class was as class conscious as the working class, but with all the resources of the US behind them. That has been the case more recently in Brazil and Argentina. It is currently the case in Venezuela. The ruling class took revenge. What can the government of Venezuela do to resist? I do not know. What I do know is that an armed and conscious ruling class is a lethal and immensely powerful weapon.

There are many lessons I learned from my Chilean experiences, but the class consciousness of the 1% stood out. I lost many friends and two US co-workers in that coup on September 11, 1973.  The book I contributed to, by the way, Los gremios patronales, was published on September 10, 1973. One copy was mailed to me. The rest were burned after September 11th.

Ruth Needleman, professor emerita, Indiana University

July 3, 2017